I'm continuing a series that I plan on adding to sporadically called "Theology Basics." I've posted once before on the definition of justification here as it is traced through the book of Romans. The intention in this series is to provide a resource to help you (and me) brush up on our doctrine and reflect on Paul's teaching about salvation. More that that, I pray that a contemplation on our salvation spurs you to spend a few minutes in reflective worship today...
Not By Works
Romans 3:9-20 expresses a sobering view of the human condition. It is described according to the sins that are rooted in speech and the sins that are rooted in human society and conduct. According to Paul, the universality of sin is evident in that no one seeks after God. Paul points out that fallen mankind is characterized by violence and destruction. In speech, people may hide their destructive intent the way that a snake hides its fangs, but nevertheless their words exude sin. If we but take a look around, we see that sin is very apparent.
Many attempts over the course of human history have been made to reconcile God and man through the creation of works-based religions, humanitarian constructs, and the like. However as we find here, Paul argues in Romans 3:20-31 that even the Jews are not justified by their works-- and they've been given God's Law!
God's standard for righteousness is a perfect life
Here's the problem: The Law in its entirety (not in part) is the standard for godliness and even the Jews have failed to keep it in its entirety. The expectation of a holy God goes beyond an "ok" or "decent" life. God's standard for righteousness is a perfect life that keeps all of the Law. In this matter, the Jews (along with the rest of us) have failed. The Law sets a standard for righteousness that is beyond any fallen human efforts. So, will any efforts to live a good life on our own end in our salvation? No. Can we, as fallen creatures, create a religion or moral framework that will result in righteousness? No, because none of us have kept the Law in its entirety.
Even in the example of the great patriarch Abraham, which is given in Romans 4, justification is not attained by works. In citing Genesis 15:6, Paul argues that this fact has always been the case. God didn't owe Abraham anything as a result of Abraham's obedience. Nor was Abraham considered righteous on the basis of his circumcision because in fact he was reckoned to be righteous even before he was circumcised.
Abraham was reckoned to be righteous even before he was circumcised.
Grace Is the Basis
A major theme that resonates throughout Romans is that it is through God’s grace that anyone is able to avoid condemnation. The basis for justification is God’s willingness to extend grace to the unmerited sinner. Ephesians 2:8-9 is exceedingly clear that the entire work of salvation is a gift of God.
Grace is not an ambiguous term. We've all been guilty of singing the words of "Amazing Grace" without reflecting on their meaning. We've also seen our theological terms like "grace" and "faith" become highjacked by a secular society which redefines them with a more generic bent. But, for us, grace can be found in the person and work of Jesus. Grace is absolutely connected to His sacrifice.
Grace is not an ambiguous term.
When we couldn't do a thing to meet the righteousness standard that God requires, Christ came. Christ is presented, according to Romans 3:25, as a “propitiation” for man’s sin as He is the sacrifice. Propitiation deals with the liability of mankind for its sin that is removed by the grace of God. It is the removal of divine wrath from the sinner due to God’s wrath having been poured out on Christ on the cross. The work of Adam led all men to bear out the consequences of sin, while the work of Christ leads men to salvation in His propitiatory work.
This basis for justification must be understood as a gift freely given by the Lord. Consider Romans 5: 6-8. People may die for another person if they are a friend or family member. They may die for another person if the other person deserves to be saved. Typically, people don't die for reprobates. And, yet, Christ died for us.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1998), 164-169.
 Robert Mounce, Romans, New American Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 36-45.
Schreiner, Romans, 201.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1996), 45-50.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 722-732.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 116-117.